Communication Rx – The Case of the Employee Caught in a Foolish Lie

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I love the ongoing relationships I have with organizations who bring me in whenever an issue involving communication threatens to impact morale, productivity, or effectiveness. I get to be like a superhero called in to save the day or in some cases, pronounce the situation terminal. In this instance, I was able to diagnose the problem and prescribe a treatment plan that may have saved a person his job, the organization the expense of having to hire additional staff and/or replace a valuable employee AND created a vibrant more efficient department.

The call came from Nancy, a director of an organization I’ve been working with for five plus years. (names have been changed) Nancy told me she wanted me to work with one of her IT staff members, let’s call him Carl. Carl had a long history at this particular organization and Nancy felt some loyalty to him but that was wearing thin. She was entertaining the possibility of letting him go. 

Symptoms:

Nancy had heard from some of her staff that Carl was rude or dismissive. In addition, Carl’s immediate boss, George, felt that Carl didn’t do things the way he wanted them to be done which made him think Carl was taking shortcuts and did not respect his authority. Carl was asked to contact me over the summer but did not do so. In October, Carl was late for work one day and lied to George about it. That was the last straw. Nancy told him he MUST contact me or else.

Examination:

I spoke with Carl by phone and met with him for a coaching session. He was soft spoken and easy going. For those of you familiar with my ActorType communication styles, Carl would be a Whiz Kid with a bit of Curmudgeon. On the phone, he revealed that he felt that he was being expected to conform in ways that he didn’t think entirely fair. Carl is a minority and a large majority of the staff and customers are not. I also discovered that Carl had been at his job for several years before George was brought in from the outside to oversee his work and run the department.

I shared some of David Rock’s NeuroLeadership work with Carl during our first session. Rock’s work involves something he calls the SCARF model that identifies 5 areas of human social behavior or human needs. – Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, & Fairness. When these needs aren’t being met, people exhibit a threat response, when they are being met people experience a reward response.

Carl immediately saw that he is very much triggered by threats to his autonomy –  and feelings of uncertainty. In fact, we could see how this particular situation at work threatened Carl in all five of the domains.

However, communication is always a two – way street and since Fairness is one of Carl’s triggers and it’s something that I feel strongly about as well, I didn’t think my work could be effective without being able to meet with Carl’s boss, George. Nancy agreed and I set up a meeting with George.

George initially came into the meeting thinking he would just tell me his version of what it was like to work with Carl, however, I shared the SCARF model with him as a way to explain how certain behaviors from Carl may be a result of some of these domains being threatened. George immediately saw the domains that he himself were triggered by. We uncovered many things the two had in common. George was also very much a Whiz Kid but since taking on a leadership role has been working very hard to bring out some Hero/Buddy qualities.

Diagnosis:

Carl:  Having been on the job for 9 years before George came, Carl felt his Status was threatened. He thought that George was constantly monitoring and micromanaging him and thought George didn’t respect his ideas and opinions but just wanted it his way or the highway. This feeling of being micromanaged and having his Status and Autonomy threatened triggered him so strongly that when George asked him if he was late, he admitted that he instantly and stupidly reverted to a childish lie. As David Rock points out, sometimes we experience domain threats as strongly as we experience threats to our lives.  I also discovered that Carl values creativity. He was not doing things a different way to be stubborn. One of the joys he gets in his work is finding alternative ways of doing things. Feeling like that part of the job was being taken away, he no longer felt engaged.

George:  Knowing his Whiz Kid weakness of being overly regimented and detail oriented, George was trying to mitigate those qualities to be more of a Buddy, which resulted in his not giving Carl any defined systems or clear responsibilities. This resulted in a lack of certainty for Carl which led to his lack of focus and accountability. And not having systems and certainty in place made George anxious and resulted in his micromanaging. I believe Carl’s shortness with the staff was also a result of the lack of certainty. He was expected always be on call to fix things but there was no clear system for how they were supposed to be fixed which led to frustration and feelings of inadequacy which he took out on the staff.

Treatment:

First, I worked on mindset. I had Carl identify the feelings that come up for him when he is feeling threatened by any of the SCARF domains and taught him ways to label and re-frame his emotions at the moment so that they dissipate more quickly. I also acknowledged Carl’s feeling that there may indeed be some unconscious bias involved and pointed out that unconscious bias goes both ways. What bias might he be using to read into some of the behavior he is experiencing as bias? I encouraged him to have conversations with both Nancy and George that expressed how he was feeling. I gave him some of my very specific Chemistry of Communication formulas to use and we role-played and videoed how he might deliver those conversations effectively.

For George, I explained how the lack of systems and clear responsibilities was affecting Carl and the whole department and suggested he do a SWOT analysis (a method to evaluate Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) of the department at their next meeting and that he set up a whiteboard that clearly laid out the tasks and responsibilities for each of them (Certainty). I also encouraged him to give Carl some ownership of establishing the systems (rewarding his Status and Fairness need) even though George would have the final say.

Result:

The SWOT analysis was an overwhelming success. Setting up a way for the department to openly express their strengths and weakness was powerful. In talking about the department’s strengths, diversity of backgrounds came up, Carl was able to point out that if that is a strength, they need to also allow for different ways of doing things. For the first time, Carl felt comfortable expressing his opinions. George expressed how grateful he was to hear what Carl was thinking. It took them two meeting to complete the SWOT but at my last session with Carl, I saw a completely different person.

He was engaged again, excited about his job and he and George had been getting along brilliantly. Based on what was uncovered in the SWOT, they were working on a detailed systems document which George put Carl in charge of. As Carl works on different sections, he checks in with George for his input. George said that it finally feels like they are working as a real department. George also followed through on the whiteboard which Carl loves. He gets to see exactly what they need to get done and gets to feel the excitement of being able to check things off. The rest of the staff has benefited as well because due to George and Carl’s clarity and order, they now have more time to proactively assist the staff with their needs.

Prognosis:

One of the tasks that George had on his hands was to assess the needs of the company to see if they needed to hire a new person on the team. This was another reason for Carl to feel insecure. However, after the SWOT Analysis and Carl stepping up, George feels they may not need a new hire after all – saving the whole organization stress and money.

I encouraged Carl to share these positive results with Nancy. It’s important for her to know that progress is being made so that she can gradually begin to shift her lowered opinion of Carl.

This might sound like a fairytale ending and just like the disclaimers on medical commercials, these results may not be typical, but they are POSSIBLE. Is there a communication-based issue infecting your workplace? Maybe it can be cured with some Communication Rx.

Master the Chemistry of Communication

Research.

Communication is like mixing chemicals. Sometimes it creates exciting discoveries, and sometimes it just blows up!

The chemistry class at my high school was pretty cool. Marble counters, Bunsen burners, microscopes, Petri dishes. But the most important piece of equipment in any chem lab was the goggles.

Unfortunately, we don’t have goggles to protect us from the mess our communication can cause BUT we do have other ways to protect ourselves using the Chemistry of Communication.

Imagine a communication as an empty test tube. Each person pours his or her mix of elements in. Sometimes those elements blend and we get a discovery like penicillin, a terrific marketing strategy, or the iPhone. Other times, a particular element hits the tube and the contents smoke, bubble, or explode. Why does that happen?

To master the Chemistry of Communication you need to:

  1. Recognize the goal of the communication.
  2. Know the qualities of others involved.
  3. Know to mix in just the right concentration of your element.

Often communication messes can be avoided by steering clear of the following habits:

  • Failure to take the temperature: Do you walk into a conversation without taking the temperature of the room? Are people tired, hungry, ready for a break, busy with something else, or emotionally triggered by a situation or event?  No matter how fabulous you think your contribution is, if people aren’t ready to hear it, things can blow up.
  • Failure to Dilute: Are you coming on too strong or over-sharing, saying more than people want to or need to hear? Dumping too much data on someone is like overfilling the test tube. All of the elements spill out, and the solution is rendered useless.
  • Over Diluting: Are you not assertive or are you passive aggressively withholding your opinion? Do you struggle to get to the point or clarify your message? Just remember, you might be just the element a particular formula needs. Don’t weaken your contribution.

Keep these tips in mind and contact me if you want a complementary discovery phone call with me to find out how to work on your communication chemistry.

Get a free infographic of my L.U.V.E Communication Formula.

Assume and Doom! – 2 Ways Assumptions Doom your Communication.

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You’ve heard the saying “When you assume it makes an “a**” out of “u” and ’me’.” I wouldn’t quite put it like that, but I WILL tell you that when it comes to communication, whether for job interviews, elevator pitches, or presentations, many of us assume our listeners know way more than they actually do.

In this day and age, we’ve become so afraid of giving TMI (too much information) that we often end up leaving out important details. Assumptions that get in the way of communication come in two forms: Emotional Assumptions and Logical Assumptions. Don’t let them doom your next communication.

Logical Assumption: Your listener understands what you do just because you tell them your job title.

I can’t tell you how many times working with clients on job interviews or presentations, a person will give a job title or brief description and then assume that the listener will know everything they need to know. Most of us are so intimate with the minutia that goes into what it is that we do that we make the assumption that everyone else is equally familiar with it and therefore omit important details that can help your listener truly understand what it is you do.

Some of you may be thinking, “But surely for a job interview or a presentation for my peers, the listener should have some knowledge of what I do. Why would I have to go into detail?” The operative word here is “some knowledge.” Yes, people may know in theory what a title like: Financial Consultant, Marketing Director or Human Resource Manager means, BUT that doesn’t guarantee that they understand what it is that you actually do. The danger with giving too few details is that it forces your listener to dig into their memory and pull up their own assumptions. Some of those assumptions might be positive, some may be neutral, and some may be a turn off. If the last financial consultant they met helped them amass a fortune, terrific. But what if the financial consultant that comes to mind is the one that ruined their grandmother’s estate?

Emotional Assumption: You know how your listener or audience feels about a topic.

Many times in preparing for a presentation, my clients will say things like,”I know you all want” “You must be tired of…” Whenever I hear those kinds of statements a little caution light goes on and I encourage a different word choice. Why? Because most people hate being pigeonholed or having their thoughts and emotions lumped together with the thoughts and emotions of a larger group. It may be important to bring up negative assumptions that an audience may have about your topic, (it’s called getting the elephant out of the room), but it’s equally important not to categorically assume what people are thinking or feeling. Feel it out by using modal auxiliaries, (might, could, may, etc.); they’re not called “polite” forms of speech for nothing.

Download a FREE chapter of my book Standing Ovation Presentations for tips on how you can better craft your message.

Sharing Your Story – 3 Women who Embraced Their Albatross & How You Can Too

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As a member of New York Women in Communications (NYWICI), an organization of professional women in media and communications, I’ve attended events with incredible speakers who demonstrate the power of sharing your story.

One event was with Madonna Badger, founder and chief Creative Officer at Badger & Winters, an advertising, branding, and design agency.

Madonna began her presentation by asking for her slides to be turned off. Before she began her formal presentation, she shared how she’d been struggling emotionally with the recent death of her ex-husband. She also shared her life-altering experience of losing her parents and three daughters in a fire from which she was able to escape. You could have heard a pin drop.

At another event, Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski spoke. Within seconds of taking the stage, Mika shared her experience of being fired from a job she loved.

NYWICI also hosted an evening with Arianna Huffington who collapsed because she was so burnt out from overwork.

All of these women used their stories to engage and inspire the audiences but they also used their stories to inform their mission in life.

After her tragedy, Madonna was determined to make a difference in the world. She decided to tackle an industry she knew–the world of advertising. She founded a groundbreaking movement called #womennotobjects

Mika’s mission for helping women know and grow their value is a direct result of the lessons she learned looking for work after having been fired. She has a book and a speaking platform called Knowing Your Value.

And after Arianna left The Huffington Post, she devoted herself full-time to her mission of helping executives slow-down and invest in self-care.

What have you learned from your trying times? How can you apply those lessons to your life goals? How can you turn your misfortune into your mission?

Here are three things you can do (and one thing you shouldn’t):

  1.  Reframe your Shame: Often when misfortune hits, we turn it into crippling shame. Reframe your shame by experiencing the emotion, as painful as it may be, rather than running from it. By experiencing the emotion, you take its power to shame you away.
  2. Own your Value: One thing Mika Brzezinski stressed is that even when your “stock is down,” you need to own your value. Discover and focus on what you’re great at, what value you bring to the world, and what strengths you have. Share them freely and confidently.
  3. Listen for your lesson: Everything that happens CAN be a springboard to a discovery. What have you learned from this? In Arianna’s case, she learned that she wasn’t taking care of herself, a value that had been instilled in her very early in life but she had ignored. Has any of your misfortune come about because you have betrayed one of your values? How can you turn that into your mission?
  4. Don’t be FAUXthentic: Listeners can tell the difference between FAUXthentic and Authentic. When sharing your story on the page or in person, allow yourself to tap into your emotional memory and not your logical interpretation.

I recently heard a well-respected professional speaker say that nobody cares about our stories. I disagree. A well told, authentic, relevant story not only creates instant trust and rapport, it can also be healing to both the speaker and the listener.

If you want to work on your story, I’d love to talk.

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Ask, Don’t Tell Leadership

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“The wise man doesn’t give us the right answers, he poses the right questions.” Claude Levi-Strauss

For years I’ve been leading a four-session training course, covering communication styles, giving and receiving feedback, time-management and people management, aimed at helping newly appointed leaders in a government agency develop effective leadership skills. 

In one session, participants mentioned how often direct reports come to them in crises wanting to be told what to do. The decisions made are sometimes life and death. So when direct reports came to the new leaders for help, they usually told them what to do and in some cases did it for them. Even though doing so was frustrating and distracting, the new leaders felt that “helping” their direct reports saved time and avoided trouble. But does it really? Or does it create dependent workers who don’t learn to think for themselves and don’t learn to trust their own decisions?

I suggested if they wanted a solid, capable team (and to avoid burn-out), they needed to spend extra time coaching their direct reports by asking them what THEY thought should be done.

The next week, one of the participants reported a huge success. One of her direct reports came to her in a panic. “I thought about what you said last week and I asked her how she thought she should handle things.  It really helped her to calm down. I made her realize that she did have the answers. I couldn’t believe it worked!” When I asked if it took up a lot of time, she said “No!”

Think of the ROI. The time you invest instilling confidence in your direct report will yield amazing returns–confident, self-reliant staff are more efficient, effective, and engaged.

There are definitely going to be times where you need to provide answers BUT next time someone comes to you wanting to be told what to do, try using these –  Ask, Don’t Tell Leadership questions first.

  •  “I understand this is a stressful situation and needs immediate action, how do YOU think we should handle it?”
  •  “It sounds like you’re overwhelmed. I get it. There’s a lot going on. What do you see next steps being?”
  •  In the event you get the answer “I don’t know! That’s why I’m asking you!”  You could try:

o   “What would you say if you did know?”

o   “I’ve seen you handle similarly complicated situations before like when you (give a specific example) I believe you have some idea of next steps.”

Telling your staff or direct reports what to do is not leading, it’s dictating. When teams and organizations feel dictated to, they can develop two mindsets: The Sheep Mindset or the Rebel Mindset–neither of which makes for a thriving, productive, or enjoyable workplace.

“Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” General S. Patton

Here’s to developing a great workforce. If you need help, take a look at my Capability Statement and contact me for information on training sessions.